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Thailand gets funding for follow-on Gripen purchase

Thailand's defence ministry plans to secure the budget to exercise options for a second batch of six Saab Gripen fighters in the next fiscal year, but the deal hangs in the balance due to the country's uncertain political situation.

The money will come from the Royal Thai Air Force's budget and be spread out over five years, allowing the service to take delivery of the aircraft from 2013, says defence minister Prawit Wongsuwan. The cost is likely to be around 19 billion baht ($531 million) and includes a second Saab 340 airborne early warning aircraft, training for Thai pilots and spare parts.

This is similar to a deal for six Gripens and one Saab 340 AEW system (Swedish air force examples pictured below) that Thailand ordered last year and is scheduled for delivery from 2011. If Bangkok exercises all its options, the air force will have a full Gripen squadron by 2015 to replace some of its Northrop F-5Es.

© Gripen International

If the government gives the go-ahead, this will be the first defence spending decision made by Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrat Party since it took office earlier this year. Some observers say it has little choice but to meet the military's requests, given that it came to power only after an army coup in 2006 and two governments formed by other parties after general elections in December 2007 were dissolved by the country's courts.

However, given that Thailand has had to borrow up to 270 billion baht to prop up its reeling economy and may need more help, others say the country can ill afford to spend more money on fighters.

"The top brass may feel that the government owes them a big favour for their backing, which made it possible for the government to be established in the first place, and that it is about time for it to repay the favour. But under the current circumstances, defence build-up should be secondary to the task to rescue the economy and to make sure that the country survives the economic crisis with the least bruises," Veera Prateepchaikul, a leading Thai journalist, wrote in the Bangkok Post newspaper recently.

There are also doubts about whether the Democrat Party will be able to last the next few months. Thousands of supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have been demonstrating outside the government's headquarters pressing for fresh elections, which could delay any decision on the Gripens.

Thailand's army also hopes to secure funding to buy six Mil Mi-17 utility helicopters. Earlier this year, the armed forces ordered a third Embraer ERJ-135 regional jet for VIP transport and medical evacuation missions.

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